A representative of a Royal Group subsidiary whose trucks were seized by authorities last week for allegedly attempting to smuggle timber to Vietnam denied any wrongdoing on Monday and offered to pay reporters to remove an article about the seizure from The Cambodia Daily website.
On Sunday, government officials said authorities in Tbong Khmum province had seized a pair of timber-loaded trucks two days earlier that were preparing to enter Vietnam, in breach of a ban in January last year on all timber exports to the country.
Ang and Associates Lawyers, a subsidiary of business mogul Kith Meng’s Royal Group, presented authorities with government permits the next day allowing them to ship the timber out of Stung Treng province, where the Royal Group is clearing a reservoir for its pending Lower Sesan II hydropower dam.
At the time, Chan Tara, an assistant to Tbong Khmum Provincial Court prosecutor Heang Sopheak, said the truck drivers were supposed to take the wood further west, to the provinces of Kandal and Prey Veng, but told customs officials that they were actually headed for Vietnam.
Neither Mr. Meng nor Remy Khin, the director of Ang and Associates according to Commerce Ministry records, responded to requests for comment on Monday.
However, Kim Seng, who identified himself as a representative for Ang and Associates in Stung Treng, called reporters to deny that the company was doing anything illegal. He insisted the timber was to stay in Cambodia and claimed the drivers were merely taking a nap on the side of the road before finishing their trip, though he declined to say exactly where they were headed.
“Actually, the two drivers were sleeping in hammocks underneath the parked trucks on the dirt road, but customs officials stopped them,” Mr. Seng said. “The wood belongs to Ang and Associates Lawyers. It was taken from the reservoir in Stung Treng province to be sold domestically, and we have permits to transport it.”
Prum Vuthy, commander of the Memot district military police in Tbong Khmum, said that was very unlikely, as the trucks were parked only meters from the Vietnam border on a remote road that no one would use to go anywhere except Vietnam.
“One truck was stopped about 20 meters from the Choam Kravean checkpoint and another was stopped about 60 meters from the Khlar Khmum checkpoint,” he said.
“We are sure the trucks were attempting to cross the border to Vietnam because the place has no other roads going anywhere else, only Vietnam.”
The checkpoints lie about 20 km from National Road 7, the nearest thoroughfare through Tbong Khmum province.
Kun Nhem, who heads the Economy and Finance Ministry’s customs department, said the trucks and timber were being held at the provincial customs office in Tbong Khmum. He said he was waiting on a full report from his provincial staff and declined to comment on the case.
Mr. Seng, the Ang and Associates representative, said his firm was in talks with customs officials to get the trucks and timber released and offered to pay The Cambodia Daily to remove Monday’s story from its website.
“I want you to remove this information from the website and I will give you some money,” Mr. Seng said. “Please talk to your editor about how much money he needs and I will offer the amount he wants to stop publishing the story.”
“I would like to ask you to delete the information from your website because the company doesn’t want this information to spread,” he said.
The government claims that it has all but stopped timber shipments to Vietnam since last year’s export ban took effect. But Vietnamese customs data obtained by the U.S. NGO Forest Trends indicate that logs and sawn wood have continued to pour in, much of it through Tbong Khmum province.
The Lower Sesan II dam project has also been dogged for years by allegations that it is being used to launder wood illegally logged beyond the reservoir’s designated boundaries.
pheap@cambodiadaily.com
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